Kriesel gives powerful testimony at EDC banquet
John Kriesel, one of Minnesota's best-known veterans and former Minnesota House representative, was the keynote speaker at the St. Croix County Economic Development Corporation Awards Banquet Thursday at R&D Banquet Hall in New Richmond.
A double leg amputee with prosthetic legs, Kriesel now lives in Cottage Grove, Minn., and said he considers himself to be lucky.
"I got a second chance," Kriesel said. "Don't feel sorry for me."
Two of his closest friends were killed when the Humvee, in which Kriesel was riding, was hit by an improvised explosive device (IED), also known as a roadside bomb.
"That was rock bottom when I found out my buddies had been killed," Kriesel said. "I realized how lucky I was."
Kriesel joined the National Guard right out of Hibbing High School and served in the Minnesota Army National Guard from 1998 to 2008, rising to the level of staff sergeant. He told his sobering story at the banquet, but managed to inject a fair amount of humor also.
Kriesel was first stationed in Kosovo in 2003 as part of a NATO peacekeeping force.
"It was an important mission, but we were never in fear of our lives," Kriesel said. "We'd watch the news and see the fighting was in Iraq and Afghanistan. We felt guilty."
Kriesel returned to Minnesota in 2004 after the Kosovo stint and made the decision to re-enlist. He had heard that the call-up would be to Iraq in 2005.
"My wife supported my decision. No one kidnapped me. I went. I believed in the mission. We even had to sign a waiver acknowledging that we were willing to go back so soon."
His group was first sent to Kuwait to get acclimated to the climate and then headed to Iraq.
"Our first stop was in a tent city in Camp Fallujah in Iraq and that first night I could hear a lot of explosions," Kriesel said. "I realized that this was not training anymore. People were trying to kill us."
He said 2006 was probably the peak of the violence in Iraq with a lot of attacks and IED explosions.
"Every time I'd hear an IED go off I'd hold my breath until we'd hear someone on the radio say 'we're OK.'" Kriesel said.
The fateful for Kriesel came on Dec. 6, 2006.
He said there were seven men who volunteered to patrol an area after a report of a drone seeing a suspicious person on the road which often means the planting of an IED.
"We went to the area and found nothing," Kriesel said. The men got back into the two vehicles and began the return trip.
"We rounded a corner and all I remember is hearing metallic 'clink' sound and then a whooshing sound, kind of like when you do a cannon ball into a swimming pool. Then I was on the ground and felt rocks falling all around."
The IED was a very strong device (200 pounds of explosives in a propane tank) and when he opened his eyes he saw the Humvee had been destroyed.
"My left leg was hanging by a thread and my right leg looked like it had been in a wood chipper," Kriesel said. "We had no medic with us and I thought my life would end on that spot."
The first man to reach him from the other vehicle that was not damaged said "your legs are really bad." He put tourniquets on Kriesel.
"Adam was always a realist and always told it like it was," Kriesel said. "The second guy on the scene was Todd. He was just the opposite. He said 'you look great.' He had the fakest smile I'd ever seen until I got into politics."
There were only two men available to try to assist the five injured men.
"I knew there were others in worse shape than me," Kriesel said. "But I soon started dozing and the guys kept coming over and telling me to stay awake, even slapping me in the face. At one point Adam came and said 'we're going to have to move you.' They flopped my legs onto my chest and I knew I was in trouble. I started to get cold and I started saying my prayers. If I was going to die, I wanted to go out like a man; I didn't want my wife to think I had suffered."
The last thing Kriesel remembers is a helicopter arriving and being in the chopper as it took off.
After a stop in Germany, it was eight days later when Kriesel finally awoke at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. His legs had been amputated, his arms were in casts and he had severe stomach injuries.
"I never got to use the line, but when I was in politics I thought it would be great if someone said 'you have no guts.' I could have responded 'yes I do -- I've seen them.'"
The next big hurdle was to reunite with his wife Katie and the couple's children, ages 4 and 5 at the time.
"I was terrified to see my kids for the first time."
The kids reacted very well with the 5-year-old saying "I just want to see dad."
Before his ordeal ended, Kriesel underwent 35 surgeries in four hospitals.
Of course, the entire tragedy changed Kriesel.
"I'm a changed person, but I believe for the better," he said. "Many thought I would die, but they never gave up on me. I'm happier now than ever because I appreciate the little things. I can laugh at myself.
"Bad things happen to all of us. It is our attitude that helps us overcome adversity.
"Life does end someday and sometimes we forget what's important. Appreciate your wife, kids, friends -- life is good. We live in the best county in the world and it is worth defending.
Kriesel is a former Republican member of the Minnesota House of Representatives, representing District 57A, which includes portions of Dakota and Washington counties in the southeastern part of the Twin Cities. He was elected in 2010 but choose not to run again in 2012.
He is a contributor on KFAN-AM 1130 radio during the "Power Trip Morning Show." He also is a motivational speaker for schools, churches and businesses. Since leaving the legislature, Kriesel has served as director of veteran services for Anoka County.
He was awarded the Combat Infantryman Badge, the Purple Heart Medal and the Bronze Star Medal for his service to his country. He worked as an intern in U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman's Washington, D.C., office in 2007, addressing constituent concerns and military issues.
He also co-authored, with writer Jim Kosmo, "Still Standing," an autobiography that details his military career, recovery from his combat injuries and life since.